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Trapped in Fiction: London and the Impossibility of Original Identity in Naipaul’s The Mimic Men

Tiffany Aimee Tsao

The narrator of The Mimic Men, Ralph Singh, begins the written account of his life with the description of an expectation fulfilled: himself as a college student newly arrived in London, greeting the news of snow with the calm acceptance of something long expected that has finally arrived. “Snow. At last; my element” (4), he thinks to himself before ascending to the boarding-house attic to survey a London damaged by the bombs of the Second World War:

The flakes didn’t only float; they also spun. They touched the glass and turned to a film of melting ice. Below the livid grey sky roofs were white and shining black in patches. The bombsite was wholly white; every shrub, every discarded bottle, box and tin was defined. I had seen. Yet what was I to do with so complete a beauty? …. looking out from that empty room with the mattress on the floor, I felt all the magic of the city go away and had an intimation of the forlornness of the city and of the people who lived in it. (5)

In a scene potentially brimming with promise and hope (a young man in a new city experiencing his first snowfall,) every component of the tableau instead bespeaks despair — the snowflakes melted into water, the final season of the year, the destruction left by the war, the “complete” beauty, the objects used and discarded, the empty room of his deceased landlord, the abandoned condition of London — all accumulating to produce an overwhelming sense of finality. No matter where he travels, what company he keeps, and what he does, this finality pervades every stage of Singh’s life, appearing in the recurring images of “shipwreck,” a “final disorder,” and the “end of an empty world.” “There can only be extinction. Dust to dust; rags to rags; fear to fear” (41), he writes at one point; and at another, he “enter[s] into those tears” of Alexander the Great “weeping because he had no more worlds to conquer” (78).

Singh’s world has reached the end foretold by T.S. Eliot in “The Hollow Men”: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but with a whimper”. As suggested by the similarity of the two titles, Naipaul’s novel draws upon many of the images in Eliot’s poem. The West Indian society of Isabella and the foreign community in London, including Singh, need “the guidance of other men’s eyes” (18), and don “deliberate disguises”. Singh sets about achieving the usual objectives of life such as marriage, fortune, and power, even as he perceives their futility: “Paralysed force, gesture without motion”. He seeks the elusive god of a city and an England which, Leela Gandhi observes’, “he believes in, even though he knows it lies” (130), as do the hollow men who “Form prayers to broken stone”. And just as Singh finally ends “washed up” (274) in a dingy suburban hotel as one of a silent, impersonal community “who for one reason or another have withdrawn, from our respective countries, from the city where we find ourselves, from families” (269):

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
(Eliot 57-60)

Inhabiting a “valley of dying stars” while waiting for “death’s twilight kingdom”, the men of the poem subsist in a period between the end of the world and the death of the world. It is this in-between state that the young Singh happens upon when he arrives in the capital of a British Empire which has been wounded by the horrors of War and whose sun has already begun to set. The bleak picture of London that Singh will paint for us echoes yet another Eliot poem — The Wasteland — with both texts ending on a metaphorical “shore” and with a ritualised formal ending: in The Wasteland, “Shantih shantih shantih”, and in The Mimic Men, “Dixi”.[1] Naipaul’s mimicry of Eliot reveals that however new this discovery of a dying civilisation may be for the writer of the Third World (i.e. Singh), it is nothing new for the writer of the Western world. Viewed in the context of history, Singh’s realisation of “the greater disorder, the final emptiness: London and the home counties” (7) comes as a somewhat belated response to a demise that has already been registered by an earlier generation of European modernists: Eliot after the First World War, Samuel Beckett after the Second World War,[2] and before them both, Joyce in his portrait of an Ireland on its last legs, “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead” (Joyce 288). Singh’s account not only comes in the final stages of Western civilisation, but as the very last in a line of works about those final stages.

In The Mimic Men, London functions as a site of lingering terminus. Naipaul’s characters find themselves in the barrenness of London, yet have no way of moving beyond that barrenness. They live close enough to the end of the world for their actions to be rendered pointless yet they have not reached the peaceful slumber of the dead. There exist no opportunities to start afresh, and there are no new and unsettling conceptualisations of identity to discover. Instead, Naipaul’s protagonist — a survivor of the colonial era — faces the problem of being utterly unable to create an original identity caught between helplessly imitating the coloniser in an attempt at originality, or returning to the roles that colonisation has imposed on the likes of him. It is in London where he gains an awareness of himself as someone trapped in a position of dependence on the imperial country for his identity:

an awareness of myself not as an individual but as a performer, in that child’s game where every action of the victim is deemed to have been done at the command of his tormentor, and where even refusal is useless, for that too can be deemed to have been commanded… (85)

Every action of his originates with the coloniser, as in a theatrical setting where every action of the player originates with a playwright. Singh comes to London, hoping to achieve a spontaneous originality — the “flowering” and the “extension of [him]self” (26) — only to find that all has already been scripted by his coloniser: a wilting London that has already attained its own imperial “flowering” and “extension,” and now lies on its deathbed. His position as a “mimic man” is not something that he willingly chooses, as if he wished to become like his somewhat absurd colonial “masters”: the miniscule English friend of Lieni’s (“the tiniest of his race I had seen” (10)) and the insecure young Englishman whom Singh remarks, “was like me: he needed the guidance of other men’s eyes” (18). He is a “mimic man” because he has no alternative. Singh comes to London only to find himself reduced to an unreal, insubstantial character walking about in a too solid, too real city.

In an essay on Conrad, Naipaul recalls the frustration of being unable to write anything that hadn’t already been written by his literary predecessor:

To be a colonial was to know a kind of security; it was to inhabit a fixed world. And I supposed that in my fantasy I had seen myself coming to England as to some purely literary region, where, untrammelled by the accidents of history or background, I could make a romantic career for myself as a writer… And I found that Conrad — sixty years before, in the time of a great peace — had been everywhere before me. (Naipaul “Conrad’s Darkness” 194)

Conrad, like the young Marlow of his Heart of Darkness (1899), can let his imagination run wild over the mysteries of an African river (“as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird” (Conrad HD 22)). Unfortunately, having made a late entry onto the First World literary scene, the writer from the Third World cannot break away from the “fixed world” by remaining in the colonies where the “fixing” was most acutely enacted, or by fleeing to Europe from whence the “fixing” came, for Conrad’s wanderings all over the globe have left no subject matter untouched. Naipaul imbues his protagonist with the same disappointment of a world thoroughly explored. Standing in the ruins of an old slave plantation, Singh sheds “the tears of men … who long to be the first men in the world …. They are the tears of men at the end of their line, who foresee their extinction” (78). But at the same time, they are the tears of a West Indian slave child “outside a hut at sunset, the fields growing dark” who finds himself with no alternative but to follow in the footsteps of the colonial masters who have already finished their exploration of the world, and who now sit contentedly at home supping with their families and reading nursery rhymes.

Singh feels the full extent of his insignificance to the British Empire in his walks around its capital:

In the great city, so three-dimensional, so rooted in its soil, drawing colour from such depth, only the city was real. Those of us who came to it lost some of our solidity; we were trapped into fixed, flat postures …. in this growing dissociation between ourselves and the city in which we walked… (27)

The city, so real, renders its inhabitants insubstantial: they “dwindle” in comparison, turning into “spectral, disintegrating, pointless, fluid” (53). “So much had been promised by the physical aspect,” Singh writes, recalling the appearance of solidity and richness of colour that initially fascinated him. Unfortunately, it is a solidity and colour that it withholds from the colonial subject: “In the great city, so solid in its light, which gave colour even to unrendered concrete…in this solid city life was two-dimensional” (18). The foreign guests of the boarding-house always appear “two-dimensional, offering simple versions of themselves” (13). Throughout the narrative Singh will associate this state of two-dimensionality and superficiality with the absence of independence and self-creation. While London’s colonial subjects now find themselves confined to life without depth, the metropolis itself has managed to attain the Third Dimension, and has thus distanced itself from the subjects who have flocked to their mother-country in the hopes of forming a substantial identity as denizens of the glamorous capital;[3] people such as the Maltese housekeeper Lieni who makes herself up as “a smart London girl” out of “a duty owed more to the city than herself” (10), and Singh who is prompted by Lieni’s “suggestion and flattery” (20) into taking on the character of the extravagant “London dandy” (210). Neither Lieni nor Singh are works of their own creation, the city being the producer of Lieni’s superficial “London girl” and Lieni, in turn, producing Singh’s superficial “London dandy”.

And why should London concern itself with nonentities who only mimic the example set before them, who even sneer at their own attempts at reality? “We pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life, we mimic men of the New World” (157). The boys of Isabella imagine themselves to be living, breathing denizens of the “true, pure world,” looking forward to the future even though they are frozen in “fixed, flat postures” as passive objects to be observed and described: James Anthony Froude (“the imperialist pamphleteer” (80)) visits the island and devotes a chapter of The Bow of Ulysses to the subject of Isabella; before the young Singh leaves for London, Mr. Deschampsneufs tells him of an ancestor’s fury at having her whole life reduced by her lover, Stendhal (Henri Beyle) to “a little aside in a novel, a sentence in brackets. A little affectionate, a little mocking. Femme de la maison” (188-189). The difference between the inescapable fictionality of the Isabellans and the reality of the Europeans is only augmented when we realise that the real-life Froude could not have possibly visited Isabella, and that Stendhal could not actually have had an affair with an Isabellan, Isabella being a place of Naipaul’s invention. Isabella and its people are described and rendered equivalent to fiction by Froude and Stendhal in the narrative, and also suffer the added indignity of being written into existence by Naipaul.

In Against Empire, Gorra notes the significance that writing carries for Naipaul, functioning as a means of fashioning one’s own identity. Naipaul can claim authorship of a considerable corpus of work, but unfortunately, there is:

no way to become the sole author of the self. Texts are made of other texts. And so the frenzy and the fear, the raw nerves, the long line of books, the body of work built up as a stay against the pain of one’s own dependency, desperately trying to write into being the self that one knows one can never fully achieve. (Gorra 96)

The colonial subject remains in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, only able to choose between overt passivity and passivity in the form of activity (the hopeless effort to become “the sole author of the self”); between being an object described or standing tall and walking proud … along the road already travelled and even paved over for convenience by colonial rule. It is doubtful that Conrad thought of leaving anything for the writers who would follow him, and who would yearn to write themselves into their own three-dimensional existence as he fleshed out the mysterious areas of the world for them, “enveloping the tale” like the fruit around a kernel (Conrad qtd. in CD 200). “With Conrad the story seems to be fixed; it is something given” (CD 198). That word, “fixed,” emerges yet again, with all its implications of an unalterable future, of paralysis and rigidity. Singh’s own literary labour starts as an aspiration to originality and self-creation, but can only helplessly fall into the pattern of previous labours. King has called the work “a Caribbean East Indian rewriting of A Portrait of the Artist and Remembrance of Things Past” (70-71). Add to this futile attempt at self-creation the fact that he is actually a fictional character of Naipaul’s creation, and the pathetic absurdity of his situation becomes complete. He is the work of art trying to be the artist: “it was my hope to give partial expression to the restlessness which this great upheaval has brought about …. But this work will not now be written by me; I am too much a victim of that restlessness which was to have been my subject” (32). Through the objectification of Singh by the restless aggression of the European conqueror, the restless pen of the European writer, and even the restless need of Naipaul to be an “original” writer,[4] the narrative truly makes him the victim of a predetermined fate. He is only a character in the completed narrative of England’s colonial enterprise, as well as in the completed narrative we hold in our hands. If we feel the narrative getting too tedious, we can easily flip the pages to the closing scene of his final “shipwreck” in the suburbs of London — a “shipwreck” that will inevitably occur no matter what events of his life have been cut out. Similarly, Singh understands even on his first day in London “that my own journey, scarcely begun, had ended in the shipwreck which all my life I had sought to avoid” (6). Having seen the end of civilisation drawing nigh, and being himself the product of that civilisation, Singh looks upon the site of the city as his own inevitable end. He has been created and shaped by the civilisation it represents, and he has no choice but to follow the course it has taken. The inhabitants of Isabella are figments of an author’s fantasy, whether it be Eliot, Conrad, Stendhal, Naipaul, or the metaphorical author — the European coloniser who has lightly pencilled them into certain “postures.”

Once again, the coloniser has moved on. Western civilisation has abandoned what Waugh terms “a sense of identity as the reflection of an inner ‘essence'” (3) and progressed onward to the “suggestion that textuality is the primary ‘reality’ of a world” (2). Using the notion of an “essential” reality (so prevalent until the postmodern era), the coloniser has created its identity on those terms and then thrown the tools out the window, leaving the postcolonial subject without that “essential” identity and without a means of creating it. The Others —

Those excluded from or marginalised by the dominant culture — for reasons of class, gender, race, belief, appearance or whatever … may never have experienced a sense of full subjectivity in the first place. They may never have identified with that stable presence mediated through the naturalising conventions of fictional tradition. (Waugh 2)

Waugh seems to regard this as an advantage for the Other, who supposedly does not lament the loss of the “real” identity that he or she has never experienced. But it is indeed possible to lament the absence of that experience. As Simon During points out, “the postcolonial desire is the desire of decolonised communities for an identity” (125), which has been forcibly withheld, and which has now been dismissed as a mere myth: the notion of true identity is passé, and “the concept postmodernity has been constructed in terms which more or less intentionally wipe out the possibility of post-colonial identity” (During 125). With this new emphasis on the necessity of text, fiction, and language as the only means of creating reality and identity, the postcolonial subject must write in the language and expression of the dominant discourse of “print-capitalism” (e.g. the English language; American idioms; biblical and classical allusions) in order to create his or her identity. But as a consequence, the desire “to achieve an identity uncontaminated by universalist or Eurocentric concepts and images” (During 125)[5] can never be fulfilled. In one sense, the colonial characters of The Mimic Men achieve clearly-defined identities through abstract construction: through their fantasies (Singh as “London dandy”), the fantasies of Western writers (“Femme de la maison”), and Singh’s own writing. Yet Singh cannot reconcile himself to the fact that these unsatisfying fictionally-constructed identities, which keep him linked to the coloniser, are in fact his reality. Especially when it seems that the coloniser has managed to achieve a far more substantial “essential” reality beforehand without reference to its colonial subjects.

Naipaul’s colonial characters become, quite literally, flat characters imprinted on the pages of a book, and denied access to a higher reality of flesh-and-blood: in the context of the reader’s world, the fictional Singh obviously cannot hope to attain the reality of Naipaul, Conrad, or ourselves; in the context of the world within the novel, the Isabellans can never attain the reality of Stendhal, being themselves only inhabitants of the “horribly man-made landscape” of the page, and peers of the protagonist of Le Rouge et le Noir, Julien. Isabella turns out to be a complete work of fiction in both worlds as well: in the context of the reader’s world, a nonexistent West Indian island made up by Naipaul; in the context of the world within the novel, designed by the colonisers to provide aesthetic pleasure not unlike that provided by a good book, or a pretty garden: “Our landscape was as manufactured as that of any great French or English park” (158). The characters of The Mimic Men are doubly condemned to unreality: fictional in our world and fictional in their world. The image of them walking around the solid three-dimensional London becomes analogous to that of comic-book characters walking around the ground-zero site of the 9/11 tragedy.

The colonial subjects have become superficial caricatures of the real men and real women of the Old World, as Singh makes more than apparent in his descriptions of the self-conscious play-acting present among the immigrant community of London: the exaggerated comic antics and anecdotes of the Maltese immigrant community; the honest kleptomaniac Duminicu (“I will be honest with you. I stole this” (19)); Lieni the “smart London girl” (10); and himself, “the dandy, the extravagant colonial, indifferent to scholarship” (19). This artifice, which Singh once thought belonged solely to the Caribbean world of his youth, turns out to plague the colonial subjects of London as well, but with less success, for the solidity of London does not solidify its inhabitants; it only highlights the insubstantiality of such caricatures. Singh feels himself “dwindle” (245) in comparison, turning into “spectral, disintegrating, pointless, fluid” (53). He longs to attain reality, to attain the coherence and three-dimensionality that the city confronts him with. Yet at the same time, he finds the grim reality of the “dying, mechanised city” (85) utterly unappealing.

London’s indifference to him does not present the only obstacle preventing him from transcending the “encircling, tainted sea” to the “bigger fears,[6] to bigger men, to bigger lands” (193) of the world beyond the artificiality of the stage and the page. As suggested by Singh’s own continuation of role-playing as the “London dandy” and his recognition of “the forlornness of the city and of the people who lived in it” (5) he resists the solid yet desolate reality of the metropolis even as he yearns for a form of reality because this is not the reality that he seeks: “For here is order of a sort. But it is not mine. It goes beyond my dream …. It is from simplification such as this that we wish to escape” (36). Singh does not try to become “real” by abandoning the role-playing that made up his island existence. In fact, in London his role-playing becomes even more aggressive as he sets out on a series of sexual conquests, even “retaining trophies” and keeping a “sexual diary” as part of his “‘character'” (25). Instead, Singh attempts to achieve reality by setting out to make his fiction the reality.

We cannot help but wonder at Singh’s persistent efforts to maintain the illusion of London as a city of “magical light” (245; 250). Three times in total does he come to London: as a student, as a politician, and as an exile. And each time, he makes the repeated effort to experience the magic of the city that he paradoxically knows does not actually exist (when he stares out at the snow falling on London, he feels “all the magic of the city go away” (5)). Even after his initial disillusionment, the young Singh continues to tell himself that London’s “heart must have lain somewhere. But the god of the city was elusive …. I would play with famous names as I walked empty streets and stood on bridges. But the magic of names soon faded” (18). As a grown man and political figure, he tries “to re-create the city as show: that city of the magical light” (243) only to yet again encounter “the terrible city. Wider roads than I had remembered, more cars, a sharper smell. It was too warm for an overcoat; I perspired” (245). And even as an exile, he refuses to give up, spending the first part of his stay touring the English countryside this time in search of “gardens and tranquillity, coolness and solitude, twittering hedge-rows and morning walks,” finding instead noise, highways, crowded hotels, and squalid surroundings. The ordinariness of England’s reality simply fails to meet his expectations of it and the nation’s own proclamation of it.

there in the canteen of a radio service which, when picked up in remote countries, was the very voice of metropolitan authority and romance, bringing to mind images, from the cinema and magazines, of canyons of concrete, brick and glass, motorcars in streams, lines of lights, busyness, crowded theatre foyers, the world where everything was possible; there now, at the heart of that metropolis, we sat, at a plastic-topped table, before thick cups of cooling tea and plates with yellow crumbs… (47)

The taste of cold tea and yellow cake is too disappointingly solid, and too unsatisfactory. The mother-country has told her West Indian children all about their own world, teaching them about their own flora and fauna (102), publishing books about the West Indies, and when tourists begin to flood the island, Singh tells us, “we learned to see with them, and we were seeing only like visitors” (158). The schoolchildren of the island learn to regard their own daily existence as exotic and unreal. But London, in its “voice of metropolitan authority and romance” has made up tales about its own world as well. This passage more overtly evokes Conrad’s novella, where the final vision of “the heart of an immense darkness” at the end of the Thames reveals to the characters the barbarous rapacity lurking in the London which transmits Civilisation to the world via the colonial enterprise. The “heart” that Singh has stumbled upon in the BBC radio canteen exposes the city of London for what it really is, as does the “heart” spoken of in Heart of Darkness. Strangely enough though, Marlow all too clearly sees this lie propagated by the civilising mission, yet insists on the importance of a belief in this lie: “What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to…” (Conrad HD 20). Having shown us that the god we worship is nothing more than an idol made of stone, Marlow unexpectedly tells his listeners to continue to worship it; to blind oneself to the truth and work oneself again into an “unselfish belief” of it, for the only way for one to continue participating in the disorderly chaos of colonisation is to impose upon it a facade of order and sense. Such an act sums up the project of the writer — to “impose order” (266) by writing a disorderly world into well-defined characters, cause-and-effect situations, and manageable plot threads, which one knows are not true per se, yet which the reader often accepts and employs as the lenses through which to make sense of his or her own life.

Unable to move past the Second Dimension into the Third-, and even unwilling to exchange a “magical” fiction for cold, hard reality, Singh instead undertakes the task of fictionalising the ugly reality which he has seen, searching for “the god of the city that we pursue, in vain” (17), though he knows that his quest is precisely that: “in vain.” The restlessness he experiences in London each of the three times that he visits, constantly walking its streets, moving “from room to room … from district to district, going ever farther out of the heart of the city” (30) draws upon the image of the restless conqueror or restless writer hungry to see the world and claim it as his ground. At first glance, this new identity that Singh takes upon himself — that of an observer and traveller in foreign climes — promises to provide him with a way of sidestepping the footprints of European writers who came, who saw, and who wrote. As we have seen, the writers of Europe have left no area of the world uncovered: not the decaying wasteland of Western civilisation (echoes of Joyce, Eliot, Conrad, and Beckett affirm Singh’s knowledge of London as material already covered), nor the Third World already written about by Froude, Conrad, (and briefly in a literary cameo), by Stendhal. In “re-creating” and thus, re-building London as a “The great city, centre of the world, in which …. [he] had hoped to find the beginning of order” (17), he can make whole a fragmented post-war, post-colonial, post-heroic world. It is the attempt of the fictional character to write fiction into reality: a reversal of the European writer and coloniser’s success in converting the reality of the Third World into fiction.

But once again, the territory has been covered, as implied by the narrative’s allusion to Conrad’s Marlow, who carries out a similar act of “re-creation” by lying to Kurtz’s Beloved in order to sustain the illusion of a benevolent and orderly civilisation. During his second visit to London as part of a political delegation, Singh discovers that the supposedly original task of re-creation that he has set before him has been carried out by, of all things, children’s nursery rhymes. Fresh from a hot bath, glass of warm milk in hand, Singh sits in his hotel room, reading The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book lent to him by Lady Stella:

My mood was soft. And soon I was saddened, but pleasurably, not only by the loss, in this roaring red city, of village greens and riders on horseback and milkmaids and fairs and eggs in baskets and journeys by country folk to London town, but also by that limpid, direct vision of the world, neither of which had been mine, neither vision, of delight, nor world, of order. (251)

This vision undoubtedly possesses a beauty: the same beauty “so complete” that the young Singh found in the desolate ruins of a snow-covered London. One rhyme follows after another, each one presenting a scene in its entirety, rounding off the world of Goosey-goosey gander before moving onto the world of Cushy cow, bonny, in a series of idyllic vignettes. “It was a way of looking at the city and being in it, a way of appearing to manage it and organise it for a series of separate, perfect pleasures …. It was a creation, of the city I had once sought: an unexpected fulfilment” (252) which lulls and soothes Singh into a childlike state. But he can claim none of it as his own, for the act of creation has not been carried out by him, and the bygone London that it re-creates does not belong to him, but to the likes of Lady Stella. Once again, he becomes the passive spectator, the child listening at his mother’s feet, the reader and not the writer. Singh’s desire to break away from his position as mimic man to actual manhood — a mature state synonymous with exploring the unexplored, with imposing order on chaos, with Civilisation and its colonisers and writers — is humiliatingly thwarted by the childlike Stella and her childish tales.

This helpless struggle of Singh’s for an original identity apart from the “fixed, flat postures” described for him by the coloniser, or that already enacted by the coloniser upon the world, only makes him realise the extent to which his identity depends on the coloniser, for even his desire to become his own person always leads him to a London which only affirms there can be no originality; that he can only choose between the act of mimicry available to him in the city, or the “fixed, flat postures” available to him in Isabella: both roles forged by the coloniser. “The city and snow, the island and the sea: one could only be exchanged for the other” (254), he thinks to himself on a plane carrying him back to Isabella after his affair with Lady Stella has ended. The choice depends on what form of identity proves more urgent: the need to possess the power of the coloniser , or the need to differentiate oneself from the coloniser.[7] Naipaul has had to make the same choice in his decision to become a writer living in London, writing for an English audience. In an address delivered at the Manhattan Institute on “Our Universal Civilisation,” Naipaul recounts his lifelong ambition to become a writer. Yet the fulfilment of this ambition required him the support of

a particular kind of society …. This kind of society didn’t exist in Trinidad. It was necessary, therefore, if I was going to be a writer, and live by my books, to travel out to that kind of society where the writing life was possible. This meant, for me at the time, going to England. (“Our Universal Civilisation” 22)

“That kind of society” has enabled him to take up the longed-for profession of writer, but has hindered his freedom of expression and his ability to communicate with his audience. In a 1958 essay entitled, “London,” he laments this handicap: “the English writer does not write for Trinidad. And I write for England. And for me the regional barrier is much more difficult than it is, say, for someone from Yorkshire” (11). The complaint comes up again in 1987: “Garden, house, plantation, estate: these words mean one thing in England and mean something quite different to the man from Trinidad” (“On Being a Writer” 7). Naipaul now possesses the power of coloniser to travel, to observe, to “live by his books” (OBW 7), to the point that many identify him as a sort of coloniser himself, reviling him as “a third-worlder denouncing his own people” (Said qtd. in Gandhi 129), or more mildly, believing him unconsciously aligned with “the high culture of metropolitan England,” as put forth by Nixon in London Calling: V.S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin (43).

Naipaul as a writer cannot free himself from an identification with the coloniser, just as Singh in his travels and observations cannot prevent himself from mimicking the coloniser, even though he declares himself at the end of the narrative to “have lived through attachment and freed myself from one cycle of events” (274). What makes Singh’s claim suspect, however, is his desire to re-join the world that he says he has blissfully “freed himself” from by living in a small, simplified world confined to the drab hotel and the dingy public-house that he visits for midday meals. He appears aware of his wretched state, yet he declares himself happy; he appears aware that he is trapped, yet he declares that he is free. He tells us that this contented acceptance of “hotel life” has enabled him to find release from the misery and despair that the city has always inflicted upon him.

Yet the solitary and obscure life that he sees as a withdrawal from London is only made possible by London: the impersonal and compartmentalised urban existence where each individual returns at the end of the day to “his own cell” (18). “In the city as nowhere else we are reminded that we are individuals, units” (17). The unsatisfying possibility that we are merely mass-produced units unentitled to either thought or action can only be dealt with by a double-consciousness-the simultaneous belief that we are indeed human individuals with aspirations and abilities. This consciousness becomes a way to find meaningful order in a pile of debris, knowing that the debris really doesn’t possess such meaning, but using the meaning as a way of surviving amidst the ruins. To make meaningless wasteland the meaning of a structured five-part poem; to see restricted movement as a freedom from the burden of having to move; to view inevitable mimicry as independence from the burden of self-creation. In the absence of possible originality and self-created identity, the best alternative becomes the worship of stone-idols carved by one’s own hands. The self-consciously deluded belief in independence and freedom allows one to become, if not the author of one’s circumstances, the author of one’s self-delusion.


[1] Latin for “I have spoken,” (implying that there is nothing more to be said on the matter).

[2] The play, Endgame, opens with Clov uttering tonelessly of the world outside the room he inhabits, “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished” (Beckett 93).

[3] The metropolis actually turns out to be far from glamorous, as I will discuss later in this section.

[4] In a 1987 essay, “On Being a Writer,” Naipaul writes: “Every serious writer has to be original; he cannot be content to do or to offer a version of what has been done before” (7).

[5] During’s statement is somewhat of a generalisation, but applies in the case of The Mimic Men.

[6] Singh’s emphasis on the man-made, façade-like quality of the island and the surrounding sea evokes the make-believe world of the song, “Paper Moon”: “Say it’s only a paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea …. Say it’s only a canvas sky, hanging over a muslin tree.” The use of this imagery reinforces the idea of theatricality (it is the set of a stage) as well as the idea of textual fiction (the set is largely constructed of paper.)

[7] Who turns out to be not that powerful after all, as Singh finds out from Deschampsneufs’ description of Stendhal: “A writer accounted great had been turned into a simple man, fat and middle-aged and ironic” (188).

Works Cited

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Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin Books, 1995.

During, Simon. “Postmodernism or Post-colonialism Today.” The Post-colonial Studies Reader. Eds. Ashcroft, Griffith, Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995. 125-129.

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Gandhi, Leela. “Made in England: V.S. Naipaul and English Fiction(s).” England through Colonial Eyes in Twentieth-century Fiction. Eds. Blake, Gandhi, Thomas. New York: Palgrave, 2001. 128-142.

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—“Conrad’s Darkness.” Joseph Conrad: Third World Perspectives. Ed. Robert Hammer. London: Three Continents Press, 1990.189-200.

—“London” in The Overcrowded Barracoon York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1972.

—“On Being a Writer.” The New York Review of Books 23 April 1987: 7.

—“Our Universal Civilisation.” The New York Review of Books 31 Jan. 1991: 22-25

Nixon, Rob. London Calling: V.S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Waugh, Patricia. Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern. New York: Routledge, 1989.

To Cite This Article:

Tiffany Aimee Tsao, ‘Trapped in Fiction: London and the Impossibility of Original Identity in Naipaul’s The Mimic Men ’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 1 (March 2005). Online at Accessed on [date of access].